The other day after washing my hair I decided to add the Japanese word for "dandruff" to my vocabulary. It turns out to be an interesting word.

It has only one pronunciatation, ふけ (fuke), but two kanji spellings and I got the impression from WWWJDIC this word isn't usually written in hiragana (correct me if I'm wrong).

  1. 雲脂 literally "cloud fat".
  2. 頭垢 literally "head grime".

But ふ and け are not among the usual readings for 雲, 脂, 頭, and 垢.

So are both spellings ateji? Or what is actually happening? By the way I can't seem to type them using my Windows IME.

I also note that these Japanese terms don't seem to share anything in common with the terms for "dandruff" in the other languages Japanese often has many factors in common with:

  • Mandarin 頭皮屑, 头皮屑 (tóupíxiè)
  • Korean 비듬 (bideum)
  • Okinawan いりち (ʔirici)

This makes me think it was a Japanese word already before Japan borrowed kanji from China and the characters were applied for meaning, which would make it a case of ateji. But this is just a hypothesis for now that I can't prove.

  • 1
    Its not me. Anyway you might check this ふけ. Also Wikipedia.
    – user3169
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 5:35
  • @user3169: Sadly my Japanese is not approaching the level needed to read either of those, and neither is Google Translate's ability (-: I can see that the first link mentions 当て字, but I can't make out what it's saying. Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 5:45
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    Briefly, the last line of the first link says that the kanji you list are ateji (with an explanation of the kanji that have more or less given in you question). I think the rest is explaining where ふけ comes from. It seems from the second link there are several kinds of dandruff, which may be why you have two ateji.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 22:24
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    Gogen Allguide is interesting, but all the suggested etymologies involve extensive sound shifts. More simply, ふけ looks like a verb stem, which makes me wonder of possible connections to 老{ふ}ける "to grow old", or 拭{ふ}ける "to wipe away" (potential form). Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 17:38

1 Answer 1


I'm just basically going to summarize the references from user3169.

Until now I've never known that フケ can be written as 雲脂/頭垢. I don't think either form is common in ordinary use of the language, as it is normally written in Katakana. But at the same time they are clearly recognized well enough to be on Wikipedia.

According to 語源由来辞典, 雲脂 is 当て字 that most likely came into being because it's white flaky stuff that comes from a higher part (of your body), and 頭垢 is also 当て字 that most likely came into being because it literally means 頭(head)垢(grime). You are right that none of those kanjis read フ nor ケ in other situations.

  • Oddly the katakana is the one form that is not in WWWJDIC! This also highlights the problems of learning vocabulary from dictionaries, especially for Japanese with the various scripts increasing the number of potential spellings. Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 8:10
  • @KK: Isn't this word normally written in hiragana, not katakana? My Apple dictionaries ("Daijisen" and "Progressive") give the kanji 頭垢 but seem to use hiragana in practive.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 12:12

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